New ‘Badass’ Allen Street Grill Chef Discusses Journey Back To State College
The Allen Street Grill recently reopened with a reimagined interior, menu, and team. At the front of the new project is its new executive chef, State College native Karen Nicolas.
Nicolas, once described by Philly Grub as “a badass,” is helping the Grill reimagine itself to connect with a wider audience. Many people in the area have had exposure to great cooking through travel and social media, so there are heightened expectations.
The restaurant staff wants to create food that people are excited about. They approached it like a new restaurant but kept the brand behind it to honor its tradition and history.
Nicolas went to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island to get her degree in culinary arts and has many years of experience behind her. She’s roamed the country working in the restaurant industry, hitting big food cities including Manhattan, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia.
She was brought back to Happy Valley for this project through a friend who connected her with the restaurant’s new owner, Jeff Sorg, when she was working in Philadelphia. This is her first time she’s cooked professionally in the State College area.
Nicolas’s experience at restaurants like Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan working under Tom Colicchio and in Las Vegas at Aureole under Charlie Palmer has shaped her career greatly. She advised to be intentional about where you work and who you work for and to learn from somebody you want to learn from and work with.
“I saw his book in a Barnes and Noble and said, ‘Who is this guy with this beautiful food?’” Nicolas said.
Nicolas got to Palmer and Colicchio’s restaurants by staging, or working in the kitchen for free as a “trial run.” She knocked on their doors, staged, and was hired after her staging experience.
“New York City is the way to go,” Nicolas said, referring to her time at Gramercy Tavern. “It’s the place you got to go to train eventually.”
“I love their styles, and I wanted to adopt that,” Nicolas continued. “I chose all chefs that kind of had that style.”
She further explained that the style of Gramercy Tavern and Palmer are similar and shaped her cooking.
Working with those chefs along with others who have different styles has been a very meaningful experience for Nicolas. She’s seen a lot and has worked with lots of different cooking styles and management styles.
“In any restaurant or in any company, you’re going to see so many differences,” Nicolas said. “Whether it’s the management style, the philosophy, obviously the concept could be different, how the ownership works or thinks, and operations of kitchens.”
In her earlier years as a chef, all Nicolas cared about was the food she made. She was focused on the creativity and competitiveness of her art.
“Obviously I still have fun with the creativity of it and the development of the menu,” Nicolas said. “I think now I get more gratification out of team building and mentoring the other chefs.”
Both Sorg and Nicolas stressed the importance of working as a team at the Grill, where everyone is on the same page. They care about their craft collectively, and both the back and front sides are engaged in creating a great restaurant atmosphere.
“It all matters,” Nicolas said. “Not just what’s on the plate.”
“Most successful restaurants are consistent. Consistent in the quality of food, the quality of product they use, and, of course, the quality of service and hospitality,” Nicolas stated. “We as a managing and ownership team, that is always something that’s at the front of our minds: to stay consistent and then continue to improve.
“In my earlier years as a managing chef, it was challenging to be patient and to let go of the little things,” Nicolas continued.
She endured struggles throughout her career but believes that making mistakes and learning from them over the years builds maturity.
She also had to work on balancing her personal and professional life as she became obsessed with being a chef. On top of the stress from juggling the two, Nicolas was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disorder that caused her full body pain.
“Before I got it, I never really thought of food as medicine,” Nicolas said. “I didn’t eat well. When you’re in the industry, you kind of get into this toxic world of eating crappy food after you work late in the middle of the night. And that mental balance, I think all of that combined brought that on, the Lupus.
“Some people will kind of submit to that, say ‘this is my life,’ and just take the drugs the doctors tell them to and live with that,” Nicolas continued. “But I couldn’t accept that. I was like, ‘There’s got to be something more that I can do for myself.'”
She studied the disease and autoimmunity and looked for alternative ways to feel better. Many of those alternative ways were diet changes, but also working on herself mentally, such as going to therapy, all of which was a three to four year process.
“I like to think of it as a blessing in disguise,” Nicolas said. “I’m happier. I’m healthier. I maintain a healthy lifestyle.”
In 2012, Nicolas was named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef, where she was brought to New York City for a photoshoot and taken to the Food & Wine Festival in Colorado.
“That put on a lot of pressure and brought on a lot of expectations,” Nicolas explained. “You got scrutinized for every little thing. It was definitely a proud moment, the moment I found out. But I want to say the aftermath was actually more pressure.”
Nicolas has had many big accomplishments, but she is proud of her career for a culmination of moments. She noted watching terrible line cooks grow into amazing chefs when she left that restaurant and getting calls from cooks she’s worked with to thank her for impacting their goals and career.
It’s obvious that Nicolas cares about her work and the people she works with, but she is an artist at heart and beautifully crafts the perfect dish.
“[Chef Nicolas] brings such a combined skillset,” Sorg said. “It’s rare that you find someone that’s thoughtful and has the artistic food and culinary side but also combines that with the ability to execute and set up the processes, and then has the management skill set to develop a team.”
Nicolas can bring a little of what she calls a “city way of cooking” to State College: a refined palate and technique along with thoughtfulness in the food.
“I didn’t know how State College and the demographic here would respond to some of my other ways of cooking when I was a little more progressive,” Nicolas said.
The way she described it, city people are more exposed to so many different restaurants, concepts, and lots of talented chefs. They might have a palate that would help them to understand her work a little more.
To appeal more to the State College demographic, she used more recognizable ingredients. At the Grill, she reimagines classic dishes and makes them seem modern. Nicolas takes those ingredients and builds them in a unique and innovative way. The key to this innovation? Always making sure there’s a brightness to the dish through acid, herbaceousness, and paying attention to the details.
“When you’re able to take those little minute changes and details in cooking,” Nicolas said. “That’s when all of a sudden a dish can go from one level to another.”
Some chefs don’t really change their menus ever and tend to stick with the staples.
“I’ve never been that chef. I always like to change it,” Nicolas said. “I actually like to change a dish before it becomes too popular, and a lot of owners used to hate me for that. I’ve always been very experimental.”
Nicolas has lots of advice for aspiring chefs, but her most important piece of advice is to pay attention and follow through.
“Don’t skip steps,” Nicolas said. “Do your due diligence on starting from the bottom and learn from other chefs.”
“People say they want cooks who’ve worked at a restaurant for four or five years,” she continued. “That’s not true. I actually like seeing someone who has one and a half or two years and then moving on. Because then I know they’re continuing to learn, and I think that’s important. Strive to learn before you strive to be a managing chef. That comes with a lot of getting down and dirty.”
Loads of effort was put into the reopening of the Grill from all sides of the process. They renovated the interior and hung up old photos. They spent all summer developing a menu and testing the dishes.
“When you put so much work and thought into it and tweaking it, you can’t really say you don’t like any of them,” Nicolas said about the menu items. “They all kind of become your favorite.”
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